COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Moments before shots rang out in a military salute Thursday and a lone bugler filled the Fort Carson air with the sound of taps, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Hughes honored a pair of comrades who he said were more than just fellow soldiers.
Hughes turned to the families of both Cpl. Justin Clouse and Pfc. Aaron Toppen and pledged his support.
"We're a family and we'll all get through this together," Hughes said in his eulogy.
Toppen and Clouse were killed June 9 in an apparent friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan. Both soldiers were members of Fort Carson's 4th Brigade Combat Team and the details of their deaths are still under investigation, the Pentagon said.
Hughes and Sgt. Trino Zuniga each spoke of Clouse's dedication to his country and fellow soldiers Thursday morning at Carson's Soldiers Memorial Chapel.
Hughes said his brigade mate from Spokane, Wash., "without at doubt saved American soldiers' lives" during two deployments to Afghanistan. He called Clouse "God's gift to the infantry."
Zuniga, who served with Clouse in Fort Carson's Apache Company in 2012 and 2013, echoed Hughes' assessment. Zuniga said he first met the soldier during Clouse's first deployment to Afghanistan and noted that Clouse was a "gentle giant" but didn't appear "terrified" like most soldiers working for the first time in a combat zone.
"He had this confidence as if to say, 'I'm good to go. I'm ready,'" Zuniga said.
Pfc. Jared Thomas joined Hughes in remembering Toppen on Thursday.
Thomas paused from time to time to choke back tears and shared thoughts of Toppen, who he said was a man of few words but a "huge smile."
"He could have had the worst day imaginable," Thomas said, "but he'd always be there with that big smile."
Hughes and Toppen are both from Illinois. Hughes said Toppen's character was one of loyalty to his platoon and to his family.
"The land of Lincoln produces hard men," Hughes said.
Toppen's father died shortly before he was deployed to Afghanistan in March. The soldier, who enlisted in July 2013, struggled with delaying his duties in the Middle East to be with his family because he didn't want to let his unit down, Hughes said.
A Fort Carson spokeswoman said Toppen was posthumously promoted to the rank of Private 1st Class.
The Pentagon confirmed June 10 that a friendly fire incident happened in Afghanistan in the same area on June 9 where Toppen, Clouse and three other soldiers were killed. American commanders in Kabul said the incident happened when the soldiers came into contact with insurgents.
"Tragically, there is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved," Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.
Maj. John Ruths also spoke during Thursday's memorial service. He addressed a chapel full of members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team and said standing together under dangerous circumstances like those in Afghanistan on June 9 creates "special bonds" between soldiers.
"Your comrades mean even more to you when you serve together in harm's way," he said.